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Art Deco building faces demolition to make way for New Acropolis Museum

Argument & protests continue in Athens over the badly handled decision to potentially demolish two ancient buildings that partially block views of the Acropolis from the New Acropolis Museum.

The Observer [1]

Athenians go to war over two views of history
Helena Smith in Athens
Sunday July 29, 2007
The Observer

It was designed by a friend of Pablo Picasso, adorned with mosaics depicting Oedipus and the Sphinx, and described as Art Deco at its Athenian best. But a row about the building that guidebooks describe as a ‘must-see’ on the boulevard linking the Greek capital’s great classical sites is now threatening to eclipse the opening of Europe’s most ambitious museum. All because the 1930s building blocks the view from a restaurant.

Culture Ministry officials say the four-storey architectural gem designed by Vassilis Kouremenos commits the cardinal sin of blocking a visitor’s view of the Parthenon from the vantage point of the New Acropolis Museum’s dining terrace. Unrivalled vistas have been the biggest selling point of the stunning museum built at the foot of the Periclean masterpiece to promote its golden age wonders – including one day, Greeks hope, the Elgin Marbles, currently housed in the British Museum.

Since construction began on the controversial £94m behemoth, a dozen edifices have been expropriated and demolished to make way for the museum. But the pink-marbled Art Deco building which blocks those all-important views, and an early neo-classical townhouse owned by the Oscar-winning composer Vangelis Papathanasiou (who is believed to have acquired the edifice with earnings from his soundtrack to Chariots of Fire), escaped because they were listed by the government as historic monuments in their own right.

‘Tearing them down will not only destroy two unique architectural works but the urban Athenian façade of one of Europe’s finest pedestrian streets,’ Nikos Rousseas, an architect who is leading the campaign, told The Observer. ‘It will go against what the state itself has decreed: that the Art Deco building, in particular, is a work of art that has to be protected.’

Last week, however, the government had a change of heart after Greece’s powerful Archaeological Council, backed by the Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, voted that both be torn down in the interest of ‘dialogue with the Parthenon’.

‘The New Acropolis Museum is the only museum designed for interaction,’ its Swiss-American architect, Bernard Tschumi, said in comments interpreted to support the demolition plans. ‘The Acropolis and the Parthenon are visible in an unexpected way. The museum is there to show what is both within and outside it.’

Last week a cement-mixer churned in the sweltering heat as labourers laid the marble staircase to the museum’s entrance. After 30 years of preparation, procrastination and acrimonious debate, the building that once seemed like a dream, a last resort of the romantically inclined, is finally nearing completion. In September a number of antiquities housed in the current museum on the Acropolis will be craned into the new building. It will open next year.

The Culture Minister, Georgios Voulgarakis, had hoped to sign a demolition order for the Art Deco building this month, but the public outcry stopped him. Increasingly the debate has turned into a full-blooded row as it winds its way through the internet, aided by outraged tourists who visit the scene.

‘We have supporters, literally, from all over the world who have learnt about this through our blog,’ said Rousseas. ‘The great irony is that it should be a view from a restaurant that should spark all this. The Art Deco building was designed with tiny balconies that could not be used [for dining] because its architect believed it would be a sin to chew in front of a monument as sacred as the Acropolis.’

Washington Post [2]

Art Deco Gem in Athens Faces Demolition
The Associated Press
Thursday, August 2, 2007; 5:05 AM

ATHENS, Greece — A reflection of the Parthenon shimmers from the windows of Greece’s new Acropolis Museum in a convergence of antiquity and modern architecture.

But from inside the glass and concrete museum, the view of the Parthenon is ruined by two buildings, and a plan to demolish them has opened a fierce debate about sacrificing Greece’s modern treasures to showcase its ancient history.

One of the two buildings is 1930s Art Deco gem designated a monument in its own right. The other is owned by Oscar-winning composer Vangelis Papathanassiou of “Chariots of Fire” fame.

With its pink marbled exterior, the Art Deco building is the most eye-catching along the leafy road leading to the Acropolis entrance. A mosaic of Oedipus and the Sphinx adorn the top story, and marble statues of women in traditional dress flank the wrought iron door.

But a visitor looking out from the new museum _ scheduled to open in early 2008 _ would see only the rear of the two buildings _ plain and charmless facades.

Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis announced in May that the two buildings would be torn down. Two months later, Greece’s archaeological council voted to revoke the Art Deco structure’s protection from demolition and its status as a monument.

Residents and architects were outraged. They have started an Internet campaign to save both buildings and have received e-mails of support from around the world.

“Let’s be more open-minded. Greece is not just antiquities,” said architect Nikos Rousseas, whose office is on the ground floor of the Art Deco building.

The new museum “is not the one to judge what part of history is important and what is not,” he said. “We can’t do things like that at the expense of other monuments and works of art.”

Defenders of the two buildings _ No. 17 and No. 19 Dionyssiou Areopagitou St. _ are urging Voulgarakis not to sign the archaeological council’s recommendation to demolish them. Rousseas has posted information on the Art Deco building outside its front door, along with an appeal to visitors to help by writing to the culture minister.

The Culture Ministry said it would comment later on the controversy.

The Art Deco building, No. 17, was built by Vassilis Kouremenos, a graduate of Paris’ Ecole des Beaux Arts and reportedly a friend of Pablo Picasso.

It is “probably the most impressive example of its kind” in Athens, said Kostas Stamatopoulos of the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage.

The debate threatens to overshadow the long-anticipated opening of the new museum next year.

Athens has sorely needed a new place to house antiquities from the 2,600-year-old Acropolis. The old museum on the Acropolis hill near the Parthenon temple was cramped and overcrowded. It closed down in June, and the new museum promises to display artifacts hidden away in storage rooms because of a lack of exhibition space. Next month, 300 marble statues from atop the Acropolis will be moved into the museum.

Greeks hope it will one day house the Elgin Marbles _ a collection of sculptures removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century and currently housed in London’s British Museum. Athens has sought their return for years. The British Museum has refused, but a space awaits them in a gallery on the top floor of the new museum.

The gallery was meant to be enhanced by an untarnished view of the Acropolis.

“The glass enclosure of the gallery provides ideal light for sculpture in direct view to and from the historical reference point of the Acropolis,” U.S.-based architect Bernard Tschumi, who designed the museum, wrote in a promotional leaflet.

The museum was constructed after years of delays and fierce criticism over its location, structure and hulking size. Critics say its style is incongruous with its surroundings, on the edge of Athens’ old district of Plaka.

“We are tearing down two protected buildings to showcase one of dubious aesthetics and bulk,” said Stamatopoulos.

The Art Deco building caught the eye of visitors gazing down on Athens from the Acropolis.

“Looking from above, you can see the new museum and these buildings,” said Michael Seigel, visiting from Tampa, Fla., with his family. “They’re very pretty. There’s no reason to see them destroyed.”